Aston Villa had won just three of their previous 40 Premier League games on the road before starting the 2020-21 campaign with three successive wins away from Villa Park.
A fourth win out of the five trips Dean Smith’s side have made came at the Molineux on Saturday – a notoriously tricky place to go in recent years, whether it be in the top flight or in the Championship, Villa headed to Wolverhampton without a win in almost nine years.
Before Villa’s form picked up to stave off a swift return to the Championship, away form last term was rather unsustainable to be thinking about a league finish higher than 17th place. Having failed to win in the 15 away trips that followed a 5-1 win at Carrow Road, Villa relied on home form to carry themselves over the dotted line come July.
Two wins in 19 away games were immediately bettered this season after just 41 days, as Villa won their first three on the road in the Premier League, against Fulham, Leicester City and Arsenal. In fact, Villa were the only side left in Europe’s top five leagues to have kept three clean sheets in as many away games.
Smith’s side are making effective use of not only the absence of home fans but also some impressive individual defensive displays.
In Villa’s 1-0 win over Wolves, Adama Traore struggled to get the better of Matt Targett throughout, not allowing space neither a yard of room for the former Villa man to manoeuvre the ball with athleticism that many full-backs cannot match.
Only a month ago, Targett arguably played his best 90 minutes in a Villa shirt so far, offering support to Jack Grealish who was a constant tormentor for Hector Bellerin – Targett’s game is all the better for a recognised defence alongside him.
As Villa so nearly found out the hard way last season, Smith’s side have improved in defending and pressing as a team, rather than in specific parts of a game, particular area of the pitch or even with certain personnel. Recruitment in the summer was tailored to improve the squads’ athleticism and overall balance.
Villa owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are starting to see a return on their £220 million investment into a Villa side who only won promotion back to the top flight in 2019. The club are plotting their ascent to the top of the English football ladder with shrewd recruitment and player development crucial to an ambitious five-year plan.
Overhauls staged in recruitment and player identification departments have shone a light on Villa’s transfer dealings following the recent appointments of Sporting Director Johan Lange and talent spotter Rob Mackenzie.
While their tenures are still firmly in their infancy, Villa’s new-look recruitment team will be afforded time to mould the desirable culture Smith and Christian Purslow are working around the clock to install.
Impressive results away at Leicester, Arsenal and Wolves not to mention the 7-2 demolition of Premier League champions Liverpool earlier in the season, has fast-tracked Villa’s progress this term, even if Smith’s side have played at least one game fewer than every other side in the top half of the division.
Effective attacking and efficient pressing
On the whole, pressing among Premier League teams is on the decrease, with every team bar Villa experienced a reduction in the intensity of their pressing in the attacking and midfield thirds.
Apart from newly-promoted Leeds, West Brom and Fulham due to the lack of data available to compare to last season, only Villa have increased the intensity of pressing, with particularly Ollie Watkins and Trezeguet the key instigators.
Smith’s dynamic system has afforded Villa with more opportunities to make use of Jack Grealish’s ball-carrying efficiencies and club-record signing, Ollie Watkins’ pace and movement in behind a high defensive line.
This season, Villa have been content in inviting opponents forward before looking to exploit the spaces in transition. In fleeting moments last campaign, Villa would often break away after absorbing pressure, but to little avail. This term, the tenacity of Watkins, and the ever-improving Trezeguet has allowed Villa to become a significantly better team – defending from the front and packing a punch in attack.
Watkins only took to the striker’s birth at Brentford last season, as boss Thomas Frank created a formidable front-three with Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo and Villa’s record signing who headed the highest-scoring Championship attack of the season.
“I normally call him the beast,” Frank told Sky Sports. “He’s a remarkable player and person. He’s so dedicated.
“He’s so dedicated to improving every single day, so he’s a coach’s dream because of course, we want to focus on little details. We’ve been working very hard on his positions and how to run in the box and the link-up play.
“Overall he’s just improved massively as a player and also as part of the leading group. He’s driving the team. Look out there how hard he works – it’s a joy to have a striker like that.
“He’s one of the hardest, if not the hardest working offensive players in the league, and he’s also the top scorer. That’s not a bad combination.”
After his first months in a Villa shirt, Watkins measures well against forwards in the league for his tireless contributions so far. The striker has completed the second most pressures in the attacking third, meaning that Watkins has hassled and disrupted more defenders in their own half than another striker in the division. Only Mohammed Salah has recorded more pressures in the final third than Watkins’s 81 pressures.
Callum Wilson and Watkins are separated by ten pressures – the biggest interval listed in the rankings. Completing 145 pressures around the pitch overall, we can determine that Watkins is capable of working off the ball in any zone across the pitch, despite being in a positional sense, Villa’s frontman. In fact, Watkins’ 57 total successful pressures are only eight fewer than the Premier League’s most, with N’Golo Kanté and Allan topping the charts from holding midfield roles.
Either side of Watkins, you’ll find the elegance of Grealish and industry of Trezeguet – a player who simply won’t give up his starting place since sparking Villa’s Project Restart revival against Palace, before scoring a vital winner against Arsenal last season.
A head injury ruled the Egyptian out of the visit to Wolves, but his balance and versatility offer something few players can replace amongst Villa’s ranks.
From the right flank, Trezeguet has contested the second most dribbles of all wingers this season at 52. Falling short to only Andros Townsend in both measures, Trezeguet has also recorded the second-most pressures among players of his position this term at 150 pressures.
An intensity matched by few other sides in the league is an impressive feat for Villa, who struggled to adapt to the division last season with fitness levels, there’s usually a reward for the squad’s hard work.
In the box this season, Grealish has made more touches in the opposition’s box than any other player in the league. 89 touches in the box for Villa’s creative man might not come as a surprise with the amount of progressive running he gets through with the ball, but given Villa’s pragmatic low block on the road, there’s evidence that Villa are efficient through defensive and attacking transitions.
Ross Barkley, Watkins and Trezeguet also featured in the league’s top 25 players to have made the most touches in the box before Villa’s on-loan man picked up a hamstring injury against Brighton in November.
Away from goal, Jack Grealish has carried the ball over 3,817 yards – surprisingly the second most in the Premier League this term. This will no doubt change as the year season develops considering his total progressive distance of 2,549 yards – by a long way the furthest distance in the top flight.
Grealish has been effective with his running with the ball, completing 32 dribbles this season equates to an 81.2% success rate. With Barkley also registering an above 80% success, Villa’s two ball carriers are statically the most efficient with the ball out of Premier League players to have completed more than 13 dribbles this season.
For all the hard yards put in at the top end of the pitch so far this season, surprisingly, Watkins is averaging a small number of shots per 90 – just 2.57. He’s efficient with chances, which is something Harry Kane and Salah haven’t got to worry about, with chance creation higher for strikers in topsides, playing in more expansive systems.
Regularly averaging between three and four shots per 90 in order to secure their standout goal tallies, Watkins is making the most of his chances in front of goal. Before the November international break, Watkins managed six goals in seven league games, including a first-half hat-trick over Liverpool and a brace against Arsenal.
He’s proving to be a big game player, in games he’s making a great effect on despite limited chance creation and difficult, long balls to deal with.
Four clean sheets in five away games
This season, Villa have boasted the fourth-lowest expected goals (xG) against per shot average. What this means is that although they have conceded a decent amount of shots, these shots aren’t of great quality which suggests the defensive structure employed by Smith and executed by his players is working effectively.
By analysing Villa’s away performances this term, Smith is happy to absorb pressure and allow the opposition to take shots at goal. Judging by Emiliano Martínez’s impressive numbers this season and last, Villa’s system is likely to remain throughout the manager’s tenure.
Martínez’s saves as Villa’s backs were against the wall at times at Wolves were invaluable to an impressive three points. No Villa goalkeeper in Premier League history had kept more clean sheets in their first ten games as the club’s stopper than the Argentine Villa signed for £20 million last summer.
In front of Martínez, standing at 6’5, Tyrone Mings has been an effective foil to mitigate many attacking problems opposition attacks have posed. Last season, Mings blocked more shots than any other Premier League player, while no defender was beaten by fewer players than Villa’s centre-half, which demonstrated Mings’ capability to fit into Smith’s defensive block and too, Mings’ defensive qualities.
While Villa still had the second-worst defensive record and the worst combined xGA total in the league last season – despite every improvement during Project Restart – Smith knew he had to supplement his squad with some added quality.
A £36 million outlay for Martínez and Matty Cash is the sort of money that wasn’t going to altogether transform Villa’s defensive woes, but as the festive fixture schedule looms, Villa looked a more athletic, secure backline.
In his first four games to the new campaign that saw Villa pick up 12 points from 12, three clean sheets and a 7-2 win over Liverpool, Matty Cash has not only been a mainstay in Dean Smith’s side but also a stand out from his seemingly reserved full-back role.
While he received his fifth booking of the campaign and consequently a suspension, Cash has become a reliable member of Smith’s side despite only putting pen to paper on a deal in the summer as the club’s first signing after surviving relegation.
Having faced the daunting task of keeping current Premier League golden boot winner, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at bay at the Emirates, for the first time in his career, Aubameyang played 90 minutes in a Premier League home game without attempting a shot against Villa – indeed, Aubameyang was one of only three outfield players who didn’t record an attempt for Arsenal in the game, testament to Cash and Villa’s organised display.
Cash holds all the attributes to be a success, and with the opportunities, Smith will hand him, he’ll more than likely take them too having earned the chance of making it in the Premier League. Martínez, Cash, Mings, Konsa and Matt Targett have all played a crucial role in Villa’s early season form.
Before the November internationals, Villa had conceded the joint fewest number of goals in the division. Though after frustrating loses to Brighton and West Ham, Smith’s side have home form to blame rather than away performances.
Having conceded the seventh-highest number of shots this term, Douglas Luiz’s vastly improving game has proved to be the foil Mings and Ezri Konsa were crying out for before the Premier League was suspended last season.
Despite being sent off with two bookings being brandished by Mike Dean at Molineux, the most startling statistic that demonstrated Luiz’s impact on Smith’s side during Project Restart was the number of xG against Villa. Before lockdown came, Villa conceded an xG of 2.35 per 90. This was by far one of the worst in the league. However, after the restart, that value dropped to 1.17 per 90 – an improvement largely down to Luiz’s performances.
Before the league’s restart, the Brazilian had one of the lowest defensive duels won % with 49.18%. This was a low ratio for a defensive midfielder, as he engaged in a relatively low number of defensive duels, only attempting 6.10 per 90. The average for the Premier League was 7.32 per 90, so Luiz wasn’t the holding midfielder Villa required at times last term.
Interestingly though, after the restart, the 22-year old had the highest defensive duels won %, with a staggering 67.85%. Luiz won almost 20% more defensive duels, which is surprising as Villa lost more. This success % is by far the highest in the league for defensive midfielders, only challenged by Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić with 63.92%. Furthermore, this success was far greater than the league average of 57.44%.
Luiz has taken the form he exhibited at the back end of last season to play an instrumental role in Villa’s impressive performances at the start of the campaign. Not only are the plaudits coming from Birmingham though, but Brazil manager Tite is also a big fan of the midfielder. So much so that Luiz has started all four of Brazil’s recent CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers.
There is no simple answer to make sense of Villa’s impressive and at times bizarre start to the new Premier League campaign, but Smith knows consistency will be the key to make use of a promising start.